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UToledo alum, flight director for International Space Station leading NASA’s launch of commercial crew vehicle

After an eight-year hiatus, NASA is one step closer to rocketing its astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil, instead of buying seats aboard Russian spacecraft.

An alumnus of The University of Toledo will serve as flight director for the launch of the unmanned test flight of the Boeing Starliner slated for late August, about a month after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Dr. Robert Dempsey, NASA flight director for the International Space Station at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control in Houston, is leading the launch of a commercial crew vehicle. He received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics from UToledo in 1987 and 1991. Image courtesy of Nasa

“The CST-100 Starliner is designed as a space taxi,” said Dr. Robert Dempsey, NASA flight director for the International Space Station at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control in Houston. “I’ve been working on this project for eight years, longer than it took me to earn my Ph.D. at The University of Toledo. I joke that I have a doctorate in Starliner now.”

Dempsey, who received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics from UToledo in 1987 and 1991, is working around the clock to train and troubleshoot for the upcoming launch, which — if successful — could lead to a crewed flight by the end of the year.

“I will be flight director for the rendezvous and docking,” Dempsey said. “I’m excited because the current timeframe means the Starliner would dock on my birthday, Aug. 18, which would be a cool present.”

The Starliner is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership in which the agency contracted with Boeing and SpaceX to fly crews to the space station, an orbiting laboratory.

This NASA graphic shows the Boeing Starliner that is scheduled for an unmanned test flight in August. Dr. Robert Dempsey, UToledo alumnus, is the flight director for the launch.

The goal of the Commercial Crew Program is to have safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and foster commercial access to other potential low-Earth orbit destinations.

It’s an expansion of NASA’s success in unmanned cargo supply ships.

The vision is for private companies to someday fly customers to hotels in space and other celestial destinations.

“When we look at the space program, the Commercial Crew Program is one example of what to expect over the next 50 years,” Dempsey said. “NASA will focus strategically on big-vision projects like getting to Mars, but private companies can invest and develop technology for low-Earth orbit transportation. We’ll focus on the hard stuff at NASA so that down the road Boeing and SpaceX can launch commercial vehicles to take customers to the moon or Mars.”

Leading up to the debut launch of Starliner, Dempsey spends his time thinking of everything that could go wrong on the mission and figuring out how to fix it.

It’s familiar territory.

Dempsey started working at NASA 21 years ago when the agency was creating the International Space Station.

“We were about three years from launching the first piece of the space station,” Dempsey said. “The design was mostly done, but the software was immature. I helped out with finishing the software.”

It’s a dream career sparked 50 years ago by one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Dempsey was 6 years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon July 20, 1969.

“I remember watching the lunar landing on television and thinking, ‘I want to do that,’” Dempsey said. “I have never wavered. Here I am today doing that work.”

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